Saturday, April 7, 2018

Everquest: I finally made it to the level cap . . . of the launch era game

I finally made it to the level cap . . . of launch era Everquest.  I hit level 50 about a week ago.  I then promptly got killed and went down to 49, hit 50 again, got killed and went back to 49, and then finally stopped doing stupid stuff and have since made it to 53.  That's light years further than I've ever made it in the past.  My previous record was something like level 24.  Of course these days the level cap is 110.

Holy cow would I have been excited to make it this far in 2000.  Of course, I would have needed the patience and spare time of a homeless saint.  I would also have possibly been willing to murder someone to get ahold of the gear this guy is using.  The last time I played a random object that added ten or fifteen points to one of my primary stats would have been a prized possession. In the modern game by the ripe old age of level 25 or 30 you can expect to cap out all the stats your class really cares about using cheap, plentiful defiant gear.  By level 50 I capped all of my physical stats, even wisdom (which is utterly useless to my class as far as I know).
I recently started playing Everquest on a whim, mainly because I was curious to see how the game has changed since I last played it 10+ years ago.  Everquest is still not a game for the faint of heart.  The best way to really get going in it is to start at level one and read the dozens of walls of text that come up during the tutorial.  Even with that, really essential things like buying and selling using the /barter and /bazaar commands, or where you can get working in-game maps of the majority of zones can only be learned through trial, error, and googling.

The graphics are extremely dated, particularly in the tutorial area.  DAoC hails from the same era and looks light years better to me, particularly the animations and spell effects.  Oddly, once you have played it for a while you stop seeing the cruft and all of this starts to look normal, even pretty in some places.  I suppose it's similar to the phenomenon where if you wear glasses that make everything look upside-down long enough, eventually your brain will flip the image so things look normal again* 
The experience of two-steps-forward one-step-back at level 50 nicely punctuates my impression of the game design of modern Everquest.  To my tastes it's a heck of a lot better game then it was around launch.  I really didn't care for it when I first played back in 2000 (I started right before the launch of Scars of Velious).  Forced grouping meant that you couldn't make much progress on most classes without committing to a session of at least a few hours.  It was also unforgiving and extremely slow paced. These days getting to level 50 solo is quite doable using any class due to the addition of mercenaries.  You can also progress much more quickly due the availability of servers with permanent XP bonuses and plentiful, powerful low level gear.   Finally, some of the more frustrating aspects like losing all your gear when you die have been removed entirely.

Even figuring out what server to play on is a bit daunting when you first start.  There are 22 servers with all sorts of rule sets.  Rules range from PvE servers designed to appeal to modern player sensibilities, featuring brisk leveling and plentiful gear, to a free for all  PvP server.  For those that feel that the baby is missing along with the bath water on modernized servers like Firiona Vie, there are even progression servers available in all of their glacially paced "hurt me like it's 2002!" glory.  
However the game is also still "deliberately" paced compared to most MMOs, especially as you advance in levels.  I can already feel the game getting grindier as I advance, both in the sense of leveling more slowly and combat gradually becoming more taxing; requiring more frequent down time in between fights.  Supposedly at much higher levels grouping still becomes all but mandatory on most classes, just like the sub 50 game in launch era EQ.

Spells, so many spells!  At level 53 my necromancer already has 189 spells (!?!)   However, because you have to pick a loadout of 8 spells, the absurd number of options adds depth rather than frustration. You customize your active spells depending on where you are headed and what you'll be doing.  There is also a clever menu system, that you can see on the right near my spell gems, that makes it really easy to find the spell you want.  I've found I much prefer this manageable number of active abilities to the setup in many MMOs where you end up having 40+ abilities slotted on your hotbars at all times, only six of which you generally use.  
You can bypass an awful lot of the game if you want to, using items from the game's cash shop.  You can start at level 85 with maxed skills and good gear using a level boost.  You can also bypass the economic game by buying Krono (a token worth a month of sub time) and selling it in game for a huge hunk of currency (they go for about 4 million plat on my server).  I've actually got more than enough "daybreak cash" for both from my last time playing EQ II.  However, I suspect either of those options would be self defeating for me.  If I boosted to 85, I'd skip all the fun low and mid-level content and get dumped right in the middle of the grindy high level game I probably won't enjoy.  If I sold some Krono, and so already had millions of platinum, loot from killing mobs would become an annoyance I have to deal with rather than anything to get excited about.

The entrance to Crescent Reach, the town that most new players will be working out of until around level 20.  All of the old starting areas like Neriac and Freeport are still available, but this area has the advantage of quests that grant nice starter gear.
Running through the Emerald Jungle on my way to Old Sebelis. Despite the dated graphics, the game does a good job of making zones feel unique.  Even the floras in different zones are distinct.  

Overall, I'm finding the depth/ obscurity of the game charming.  There is an absurd amount content, more than 500 zones according to wikipedia.  It has been relaxing fun to take my time leveling up, gradually learning the game mechanics and exploring new areas as I go.   I'm honestly not entirely sure whether I'm enjoying the game on it's own merits, or in comparison to the much slower paced game I tried years ago and got frustrated with.  Likely both.  Regardless, I'm having a great time.

*I fell down a pretty interesting google rabbit hole looking for the link I embedded in that caption.  This paper contains a more modern take on the issue.  Apparently it's a point of debate whether your brain really flips the image or an upside-down world just starts to look normal to you.  Either way, my point stands :-)